Proposed Regional Grouping a Non-Starter

Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s proposal to merge two associations of former Soviet states has come as a surprise to many observers, as his country has shown a distinct reluctance to be part of regional groupings. NBCentralAsia analysts say the initiative looks suspiciously like a way of promoting Uzbekistan’s own role in the region, and is unlikely to be taken up by other states.

Karimov came out with the idea during a June 5 meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, in the course of an informal summit of leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS. He proposed unifying two groupings that come under the CIS umbrella, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Community, EurAsEC, which as their names suggest deal with security-sector and economic coordination among their members.

Karimov argued that a strong and more effective organisation was needed.

The CSTO was set up in 2002, developing out of the Collective Security Treaty signed in 1992. The bloc’s current members are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks were latecomers, joining only in 2006.

All these states, with the exception of Armenia, are also members of EurAsEC, established in 1995 with the aim of promoting free trade and a customs union.

NBCentralAsia analysts believe Karimov’s idea of fusing the two groupings was not born out of a commitment to regional integration. Tashkent has traditionally been an unwilling participant in multilateral arrangements, preferring to conclude bilateral agreements.

“It’s unlikely this proposal represents a serious, sustained commitment to integration,” said a political expert from Uzbekistan. “Statements of intent by Karimov are always unstable. One day he proposes some kind of union, and the next he abandons the idea.”

The analyst recalled that in 1999 Uzbekistan stopped being a signatory to the Collective Security Treaty, arguing that it was no longer in its interests to adhere to the document. Yet seven years later, the country joined the CSTO.

Between 1999 and 2005, Uzbekistan was part of GUUAM, along with Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. This grouping of states along the southern tier of the former Soviet Union was viewed at the time as a potential rival to the CIS. Tashkent withdrew from it as part of another change of direction, away from the West and back to Moscow.

Another NBCentralAsia observer believes the new plan has been conceived “purely for propaganda purposes”, as the Uzbek leadership senses that its credibility is collapsing in the eyes of other CIS, EurasEC and CSTO members.

“Uzbekistan’s partners in these regional organisations can see that Uzbekistan is very reluctant to ratify most of the agreements they come up with and that it makes little effort to fulfill its obligations,” he said. “It is preoccupied with advancing its own political and economic interests, not with regional integration.”

Despite the agreements reached by CSTO and EurasEC, Uzbekistan has kept strict border controls in place for other member states, maintained customs barriers to free trade, and not allowed the free movement of funds, people and goods.

Other commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia think Karimov’s idea of merging two structures that have quite disparate aims stems from a desire to enhance his own status as a respected regional leader and elder statesman.

“Karimov may be hoping that if his idea is accepted, he will acquire a reputation for leadership in the region and shape the strategic direction taken by policymaking,” said one local observer.

Orozbek Moldaliev, director of the Politics, Religion and Security Centre in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, believes that properly implemented, a merger between the CSTO and EurasEC could be a viable proposition.

But the problem, he said, is that even now, participating states do not make much of an effort to cooperate, so there is no guarantee they would do so as part of a new grouping. Few of the 1,600 agreements that the various CIS structures have signed to date have actually been ratified by members’ respective parliaments.

Karimov has consistently opposed Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s proposal for a specifically Central Asian grouping.

As Moldaliev noted, “During a recent visit to Kazakhstan, Karimov responded to President Nazarbaev’s initiative for a Union of Central Asian States by saying Uzbekistan and other countries in the region were not ready for integration. It’s therefore unclear why he would need to come out with his own initiative.”

(NBCA is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)